How to Build a Team When You’re Not the Project Manager

One of the most common problems I’ve faced as a project manager is “fixing” a broken team. There are lots of reasons people don’t work together well. Sometimes team members prefer working solo. Sometimes there are organizational issues discouraging collaboration. And sometimes two people just don’t like each other.

Team players or individuals
Team player or individual contributor?

Even if you’re not a project manager, there are some simple things you can do to help build a strong team.

  • Listen to everyone. And I do mean everyone. Even the squeaky wheels, even the people that make everyone else roll their eyes. You never know what you’ll learn.
  • Show respect to everyone. Assume everybody has something to offer. In my experience, they probably do. It just may not be what you expect.
  • Acknowledge it when things don’t go right. If you don’t screw up, you won’t learn. Focus on what went wrong (the process), not on who’s to blame (the person). Get to the root cause and address that.
  • Encourage creative bitching. If you’re already stuck, it’s too late to ask for ideas and input. I had one rule as a project manager: no complaining without suggesting a solution. Get your teammates’ input on problems you’re facing before it’s too late.
  • Keep your promises. The fastest way to build a team–or turn around a troubled one–is to build trust. And the easiest way to do that is to be true to your word. If you commit to something, do it. If you can’t meet a commitment, fess up and negotiate an alternative.

You’ll be setting a standard that other team members will most likely respect and emulate. And your project manager will appreciate the support.

Leader of the Pack: Lessons in Life and Leadership from my Dogs

I’ve read what seems like a bazillion books on how to be a leader.

I bet you have, too.

Most of them are awful, a few are OK, but none has rung my chimes. Yet I’ve been consistently told I’m a good leader. So where did I pick up these skills?

Other than the trite, “treat people the way you’d like to be treated,” the only idea I can come up with is a life lived with dogs. Seriously.

A Life With Dogs

I grew up in a big house in the country. My parents had a soft spot for any dog that needed a home, and the word got out. Back then, we were the crazy people who lived up on the hill with all the dogs, not a family engaged in rescuing strays. The dogs were an integral part of the family: protectors, varmint-removers, a great alarm system, snugglers on a cold night. 

Definitely NOT a leader

Let me clarify: I’m not talking about two or three cute little moppets. I mean a pack of 12-15 large Dalmatians. You know, those big white dogs with black spots that Disney made a few movies about. They run about 60-75 pounds, and they can be formidable protectors. They need a lot of exercise and make great companions for country kids looking for adventure.

When I was very little, our alpha female took a strawberry ice cream cone away from me.

I cried about it to my father but got no sympathy. He told me I needed to be the alpha. So the lessons started. The alpha female was deaf, and all commands had to be issued using both words and hand signals. 

Pretty soon I was giving commands to these large dogs–and they were obeying. 

Getting Feedback–Whether You Want It or Not

Decades later, I flew home for my mother’s memorial service. In the interim, I’d built businesses, led teams, learned to be a good project manager and, eventually, a leader.

After the service, a tiny, elderly woman approached me with great determination. Peering up at me, she shook a finger in my face and claimed everyone in town thought my mother was crazy. And that it was creepy to see a little girl have a pack of dogs do exactly what she wanted without having to say anything.

Lessons for a Leader

What did I take away from this experience?

  1. People remember leaders–even when they’re little kids in charge of a bunch of big dogs.
  2. You can learn a lot from dogs.

Stay tuned for more in this series, Leader of the Pack.